The most important thing to remember is not to panic.
“The more you flail around, the more tired you get,” said Firefighter Jennifer Morimoto, from Cabin John Station 10 and a member of the county’s water rescue team. Morimoto and five other member of the team took part in a demonstration of water rescue techniques and equipment.
The rescue team responds to everything from canoeists who fall overboard to hikers who fall off the Billy Goat trail. Occasionally the boat crews will respond to people injured on the trail when river access is easier than overland. “They can have boats in the water in 10 minutes,” said Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire Department.
In addition to rescue personnel at Cabin John station 10 and 30, there are water rescue teams based in Darnestown and Germantown. The Cabin John units typically respond to calls from Seneca to the District line.
When there is a water rescue, Montgomery County units often get assistance from Fairfax County and a helicopter owned by the National Park Service based at Bolling air force base.
Rescuers have equipment necessary to retrieve people in all conditions. “We can do rescues, underwater, and swiftwater,” Piringer said.
The Potomac is considered swiftwater. “It doesn’t look like it’s moving, but if you go in, you’ll go,” Morimoto said.
The crews from Cabin John Station train for river rescues every week.
Even though the weather may be warm, the water can be very cold. “You go in that water, people start getting hypothermic,” said Katie Matheny, Master Firefighter from Cabin John Station 10.
Some crew members will wear a diver’s “dry suit,” similar to a wet suit, except sealed so the divers don’t get wet. Staying dry allows the rescue crews to stay in the water longer and gives them an extra degree of safety.
Depending on the individual in the water, rescue crews may or may not need to get in the water. First the boat crew will throw a line to a distressed person. “A lot of people don’t have the hand strength. They’re wet. They’re cold. They can’t hold on,” Morimoto said.
In that case crews do not hesitate to assist the person in the water. “We’ll go right in,” Morimoto said.
Earlier this year, the Fire Department had proposed shifting three firefighters who operate the ladder truck in Station 10. These same firefighters are members of the rescue crew and would have been moved to a station further from the river.
“We’re fortunate to have the rescuers,” Piringer said. “The county has restored our budget